Simmons Says - Whole new year for Pioneers

Braylon Grayson is one of the lone holdovers from 2020.

Captain Obvious is probably going to pop up at my house after I finish posting this story, but I’m still going to say it: the 2021 Pioneer football team looks nothing like the 2020 version.

If you’ve been reading our position breakdowns – and you should – then you know that Warren County is going to be breaking in new starters at 18 positions this fall. That doesn’t even include the fact the Pioneers will have a whole new special team unit as well.

I’m going to point it the massive differences a lot this fall because I know Warren County. Moreover, I know the fans. They’re going to show up in full force at Nunley Stadium next week, see those sweet Pioneer uniforms on the sidelines and they'll start thinking how it’s time to whoop some Tigers again.

I get it – why not be optimistic? Ever since coach Matt Turner came to town, the whole program has a different swagger. Warren County has piled up wins – especially at home, where Turner is 7-3 in two seasons. It’s Nunley Stadium and the Pioneers are going to protect the house! It feels like what should happen, right?

This should be stressed now – that easily could happen in seven days. The Pioneers could go out and do work against DeKalb County, running the Warren County winning streak in the border battle to three games. It can happen – I’m just not ready to say with 100 percent (or even 50 percent) certainty that it will.

Why? Well, again – the Captain Obvious moment – this team looks nothing like last year’s squad.

Not having CJ Taylor is one thing. Warren County isn’t blessed with that type of talent often – he’s a once-in-a-generation athlete. It would be coaching malpractice to even ask a person on this team to try to be Taylor – the program’s first Mr. Football – this fall. It won’t happen.

This team isn’t just missing Taylor as a player though. They’re missing his confidence, his ability to put out fires defensively and his ability to make something out of nothing on offense. Of the three, I’d want the confidence back the most.

Last year’s team loved to talk the talk because it knew when the lights came on, it could walk the walk too. That unwavering confidence spread throughout the school and community over the year. After years of being laughed out of the room in any athletic debate, Warren County could finally plant its flag and puff out its chest.

The football team set the tone – you had to be ready if you saw Warren County on the schedule. The 2020-21 Pioneers (and Lady Pioneers) weren’t going to play around. If you couldn’t match their intensity, you were going home with a loss – and probably a very embarrassing one.

Week 1 last year, it was the Taylor show. He dismantled DeKalb County in a way I’ve rarely ever seen in a team sport – where it felt like one guy out of 22 was worth 30 points on his own. From then on though, it was all the Pioneers finding that unshakeable confidence.

There was one thing I told coach Turner while watching practice this week. After having to start and stop a drill a few times because the Pioneers couldn’t determine which 11 guys were supposed to be on the field, Turner stopped to have an impassioned heart-to-heart with the group. To sum up Turner’s speech, it basically boiled down to wanting to see guys fight and claw to be that 11.

It’s been his mantra since taking over the program. Turner always wants to have his best 11 on defense because, as he puts it, “you don’t lose games when the other team doesn’t score.”

Well, after the drill, I had a chance to speak with him. And I just said, “Last year’s team had 20 guys who would fight you to be in that 11. This year, it seems like 20 kids are fighting to NOT be in that 11.”

I don’t blame teenage kids for being hesitant. Many of them are experiencing football for the first time and they don’t want to be the weak link that breaks down at the worst moment. It’s human nature to fear failure – I’ve been in that situation myself and took the easy road, subbing myself out instead of trying (and maybe failing).

Eli Cantrell, Jaythan Pleasant and Nate Elrod are doing what they can to emerge as playmakers for Squad 53.


Last year’s team didn’t have that mentally though. If anything, there were moments throughout the preseason where kids were ticked off if they thought they weren’t getting a chance to showcase their skills. You weren’t going to tell some of the seniors they wouldn’t start. They weren’t going to hear it.

Clay Thompson and Bryson Elrod both thought they could be the starting QB of the Pioneers. When they realized it wasn’t happening for them, they went and took somebody else’s job at a different position (and both became all-region players along the way).

Kason Holder and Ryland Holder went at Taylor relentlessly in practice last fall. They wanted every single 1-on-1 rep against the best, because they weren’t going to concede that anybody was better than them between the lines. Even in the trenches, Douglas Wells and Kaden Jordan were best friends when they saw a different color jersey to bully in front of them, but would go to war in practice.

Taylor was larger than life and the face of a magical season outside the program, but he was just one of many stars inside the locker room. Players weren’t going to get lost in his shadow – they were going to make sure people saw their star could shine just as bright.

If you need an example, none are better than Ryland Holder’s halftime speech against Cookeville last year. By the time homecoming rolled around, the Pioneers were 6-0 and Taylor had already eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards (including being the state’s player of the week two weeks before at Blackman).

You had to have a lot of -- Huevos – to demand that you get the ball from the eventual Mr. Football in Tennessee. But Holder had seen something in the Cookeville defense and told Taylor and the coaching staff to get him the ‘dang’ ball and get out of the way. He backed it up by carrying 11 Cavaliers over 20 yards for a touchdown moments later.

When I watch this year’s team practice, I wonder about which kids have that kind of grit. I wonder which kid would have enough fire and determination to say, “I’m the best player on this field, I’m getting the ball and nobody is going to stop me!” Last year’s team had at least a dozen of those guys – warriors who knew if a job needed to be done, they could do it.

This year’s team is going to get the glow from that squad just based on the timing. Everybody is going to be looking for them to be the encore – the next step in the program’s continued rise out of the ashes of 30 years of losing.

There is no Taylor to bail them out this time though, nor any Holder to come through and carry guys into the endzone. Riding the wave of momentum the 2020 built ends the moment the ball goes in the air at Nunley Stadium next Friday. By then, the 2021 team will have to sink or swim on its own.

Knowing coach Turner and his staff, he will have his guys ready to run through a brick wall by the time the Tigers are here. Guys like Braylon Grayson and Dayton Jernigan, holdovers from last year, aren’t going to go down without a fight. More players will, unquestionably, take the challenge and emerge in that best 11 conversation.

It’s just not going to look like 2020 and that’s OK. This year doesn’t have to look like last year to be a success. Let’s just hope it is not like 1991 either – the last time Warren County had a chance to sustain momentum and instead fell into three decades of mediocrity.

I don’t even need Captain Obvious to tell me that nobody wants that again.

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